I live in Nizamuddin Basti, and study in a school run by an organization there. I used to study in a well-known private school till three years ago…and then, because of family circumstances, I had to switch to this all girls, non-formal school in the basti. It was very hard to adjust here. The environment was extremely different from my old school. I couldn’t bunk periods here like I would in my old school and have fun. Back in my old school, I used to participate in all extracurricular activities back: dance, marching etc, but there was none of this here. I was scared of the old teachers there, they used to scold a lot, no one could play and there was strict discipline. Initially, I didn’t go to school for an entire month, and then, I slowly adjusted. I changed myself – my clothing, my manners – as per their requirements. The teachers here like me a lot because I am good at studies, and respectful towards them.​

One day, the Tasawwur coordinator came to our school in the basti. She asked us about social issues, and said that if we joined this program, we would get to do theatre and other activities. I had never done these, so I wanted to give it a shot. Then all the other girls from my school who had signed up said they couldn’t go, and I would have been the only one from the basti. I didn’t want that…finally, another one said she will come, so I made up my mind to go. The very first day we came here, I was apprehensive. I had no friends here, and I was so scared and it felt so strange and I was also feeling a bit shy.

I remember there was a movement exercise, in which everyone was dancing and had to say their names and introduce themselves using a ribbon as a prop. I was scared, because in my neighbourhood, girls don’t do this kind of stuff…if they do, people tell them “all the boys are watching you, don’t do it”. But boys are never told not to dance. I used to be fond of dance earlier, when I was in my old school…you see, we were younger, everyone would encourage it, but not anymore. I was scared that I would be asked to dance, so when my turn came, I said, “my name is Ziya, and I don’t like such ootpatang baatein (meaningless things).” But then I relaxed gradually…the facilitator spoke so nicely, and I always warm easily to people who speak nicely to me. So I thought “OK, it will get better”. Coming here regularly, I started feeling more at home, and the activities were such that they helped me open up. I remember there was an exercise in which we all had to walk…and I felt so strange about walking, because I didn’t want everyone to be looking at me, but once I did it in front of everyone, I felt comfortable and now, I can do any kind of activity!

I was a bit wary about the Bluebells girls in the beginning, as I wasn’t sure if they would make us feel less than them… some people do that, don’t they. But they were not at all like that…they spoke so nicely, so I felt comfortable. Now I am glad that we were a mixed group…we got to learn about different social issues and put them in the show at the end. The girls from my area talk about the same issues: that girls are not educated enough, that parents marry them off early. These are the standard issues that people from our area face. But at Tasawwur, I learnt about people from different worlds. I was so impressed to learn that one of them is financially independent: he works and earns money by making earrings! He told me that his parents don’t let him visit the mosque…there is so much discrimination on the basis of religion and caste still! Another boy told us that his father would beat him up regularly. I think I had something to offer as well…I remember, the day we enacted the sexual harassment scene, one of the boys was not able to play the sexual harasser, so I did it. I could do it easily, because I have seen many boys harassing girls. I have usually observed that if girls ask for attention, then boys harass them.

A few of the activities were a bit uncomfortable, because we had to share what we thought honestly. I remember that during the privilege walk, they asked us to take a step back if our religion is portrayed in a negative light on TV. It was uncomfortable for me to step back because my Hindu friends were also there…but I really feel that Muslims are portrayed negatively on TV, always shown as terrorists. Even though it was uncomfortable, it was helpful, because we are otherwise unable to share what is on our minds. And one does feels lighter after sharing.
The girl who came with me from the basti dropped out later, but by that time, it didn’t matter to me, because I had made friends. I am still in touch with many of them, especially the Bluebells girls. We keep in touch, talk on Facebook. The facilitators were very kind as well, and someone would always come pick me up. I feel really good when someone comes to pick me up. Once, I remember, all 3 facilitators came to pick me up at school, and even the school teachers were saying, “Look, how much they love you, Ziya! ” Even my family members like Tasawwur a lot, so they always let me go for Tasawwur activities. Tasawwur felt like a family.

Tasawwur also got me interested in theatre. I discovered that it’s a lot of fun, the laughter and sense of community in putting a show together. Niranjini didi, she also encouraged me, and said that I can do theatre. The show was so much fun…Gagan would keep forgetting his lines, and I would say his dialogues! There was teamwork…if one of us forgot the clap, the others would pick it up. We were performing our friend’s stories, and wanted to do it very well indeed. At the end, there was such thunderous applause! I didn’t know that people would appreciate so much, and understand our show so deeply.

I have changed a lot through Tasawwur. I was not this confident earlier, to go and do a stage show…but now I can stand on stage, I can look into people’s eyes and speak. I have decided that want to pursue theatre alongside studies in college. Inshallah, if I get the opportunity, I will work hard to make this happen…and I think my family will support me…but let’s see, I do want to do it. This is my dream now.

As told to Kandala Singh. 

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